In the article Engelhardt reminds us of just who Obama has chosen to surround himself with as advisers. Was there ever such a collection of incompetents in one city? Oh yes, during the Bush administration.
Why did he listen to them? And under such circumstances, why should we take the results seriously?
Stop for a moment and consider the cast of characters who offered the president the full range of advice available in Washington — all of which, as far as we can tell, from Joe Biden’s “counterterrorism-plus” strategy to McChrystal’s COIN and beyond, was escalatory in nature. These are, of course, the wise men (and woman) of our era. But just a cursory glance at their collective record should at least make you wonder:
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is now said to be the official with the best ties to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and so the one in charge of “coaxing” him into a round of reasonable nation-building, of making “a new compact” with the Afghan people by “improving governance and cracking down on corruption”; and yet, in the early 1990s, in her single significant nation-building experience at home, she botched the possibility of getting a universal health-care bill through Congress. She also had the “wisdom” to vote in 2003 to authorize the invasion of Iraq.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, reputedly deeply trusted by the president and in charge of planning out our military future in Afghanistan, was in the 1980s a supposed expert on the Soviet Union as well as deputy CIA director and later deputy to National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. Yet, in those years, he couldn’t bring himself to believe that the Soviets were done for even as that empire was disappearing from the face of the Earth. In the words of former National Security Council official Roger Morris, Gates “waged a final battle against the Soviets, denying at every turn that the old enemy was actually dying.” As former CIA official Melvin Goodman has put the matter: “Gates was wrong about every key intelligence question of the 1980s… A Kremlinologist by training, Gates was one of the last American hardliners to comprehend the changes taking place in the Soviet Union. He was wrong about Mikhail Gorbachev, wrong about the importance of reform, wrong about Moscow’s pursuit of arms control and détente with the United States. He was wrong about the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan…”
Vice-President Joe Biden, recently described as potentially “the second-most-powerful vice president in history” as well as “the president’s all-purpose adviser and sage” on foreign policy, was during the Bush years a believer in nation-building in Afghanistan, voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq, and later promoted the idea — like Caesar re: Gaul — of dividing that country into three parts (without, of course, bothering to ask the Iraqis), while leaving 25,000-30,000 American troops based there in perpetuity, while “these regions build up their state police forces.”
General Stanley McChrystal, our war commander in Afghanistan and now the poster boy for counterinsurgency warfare, had his skills honed purely in the field of counterterrorism. He was a Special Ops guy. The man who is now to “protect” the Afghan people previously won his spurs as the head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq and Afghanistan. He ran the “manhunters” – essentially, that is, he was the leader of a team of assassins and evidently part of what reporter Seymour Hersh has termed an “executive assassination wing” of that command, possibly taking orders directly from Vice President Dick Cheney. His skills involved guns to the head, not protective boots on the ground.
General David Petraeus, the general leading everything, who has been practically deified in the U.S. media, is perhaps the savviest and most accomplished of this crew. He surged into Iraq in 2007 and, with the help of fortuitous indigenous developments, staunched the worst of the bleeding, leaving behind a big question mark. His greatest skill, however, has been in fostering the career of David Petraeus. He is undoubtedly an advisor with an agenda and in his wake come a whole crew of military and think-tank experts, with almost unblemished records of being wrong in the Bush years, whom the surge in Iraq recredentialized.
Karl Eikenberry, our ambassador to Kabul, in his previous career in the U.S. military served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, and as the commander of Combined Forces Command Afghanistan was the general responsible for building up the Afghan army and “reforming” that country’s police force. On both counts, we know how effective that attempt proved.
And when it comes to key figures with well-padded Washington CVs like Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or James Jones, present national security advisor and former commandant of the Marine Corps, as well as the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, a close friend of Senator John McCain, and a former revolving-door board member of Chevron and Boeing, remind me just what sticks in your mind about their accomplishments?
So, when you think about Barack Obama’s Afghan decisions, imagine first that the man considered the smartest, most thoughtful president of our era chose to surround himself with these people. He chose, that is, not fresh air, or fresh thought in the field of foreign and war policy, but the airless precincts where the combined wisdom of Washington and the Pentagon now exists, and the remarkable lack of accomplishment that goes with it. In short, these are people whose credentials largely consist of not having been right about much over the years.
Admittedly, this administration has called in practically every Afghan expert in sight. Everyone involved could now undoubtedly expound on relatively abstruse questions of Afghan tribal politics, locate Paktia Province on a map in a flash, and tell you just which of Hamid Karzai’s ministers are under investigation for corruption.
Unfortunately, the most essential problem isn’t in Afghanistan; it’s here in the United States, in Washington, where knowledge is slim, egos large, and national security wisdom is deeply imprinted on a system bleeding money and breaking down. The president campaigned on the slogan, “Change we can believe in.” He then chose as advisors — in the economic sphere as well, where a similar record of gross error, narrow and unimaginative thinking, and over-identification with the powerful could easily be compiled — a crew who had never seen a significant change, or an out-of-the-ordinary thought it could live with — and still can’t.